BRADENTON, Fla. – One week from now, Jordan Milbrath will still be a professional relief pitcher, that much is fairly certain.
What’s a big unknown is where he’ll be plying his trade. Milbrath, 26, was chosen by the Pirates from the Cleveland Indians in the Rule 5 draft this offseason.
If he makes the team, the Pirates would have to keep him on the roster all season in order to keep him in the organization. If he doesn’t make the team, he’ll get returned to Cleveland. Or Columbus. Or maybe back to Akron, where he finished 2017 in Double-A.
That’s a pretty big range of options, and as guys start to pack things up and prepare for the regular season, Milbrath is probably one of the few guys in the clubhouse that legitimately has no idea where he’s going to end up.
“It’s definitely a unique circumstance,” Milbrath said. “I knew it before I came into it. But I didn’t let it affect how I was going to go out and do and how I was going to go about my day-to-day business.”
The big thing for Milbrath coming in this spring was not trying to pitch like he was trying to make the roster and instead focus on the things he was doing at Akron that made him attractive in the first place, which includes his dropped-down arm slot, and spinning a two-seamer with an eye-popping ground ball rate.
“I feel like I’ve come here and not tried to do too much,” he said. “I’ve just kinda used what I had last year, came in here and just wanted to get ready for the season and at that same time showcase what I have. I feel like I’ve done that and I haven’t allowed myself to get too far out of my comfort zone.”
In fact, Milbrath has found himself in something of an unexpected comfort zone when it comes to fitting into the Pirates clubhouse. As a new face that may or may not be around for very long, it would be easy to see how it would be tough to fit in. But Milbrath has been a part of the team’s ongoing dominoes tournament, went fishing with catcher Ryan Lavarnway, and has found some kindred spirits among the pitching staff.
“I came into camp just not knowing anybody’s name,” Milbrath said. “It took me a couple weeks and now, I find myself calling guys by nicknames and we’ve got a dominoes tournament today. It’s a lot of fun to be in this clubhouse. There’s a lot of young guys, a lot of guys that I’ve found have fought through a lot of adversity to get here, so we all kind of share that similar story. If you’re a pro baseball player, you’ve been humbled by the game at some point and everybody’s been through adversity.”
The Pirates general policy when it comes to new pitchers is that pitching coach Ray Searage does a lot of watching before getting involved and making any changes. That seems to be especially the case with Milbrath, who they might have to return at the end of the month.
“Coming in, we sat down and had a meeting,” Milbrath said. “It was like, ‘You’re here, obviously we can’t keep you unless you make the team, so we’re not going to try to adjust and change you this spring. We just want you to come in and see what you have. We’ll guide you here and there, but we’re not going to make any big changes that we want to see. We’re just going to see what you can do and what you have.’”
The results haven’t been particularly encouraging for the young righty so far. In eight appearances, he’s thrown 7.1 innings and has a 9.82 ERA. But Spring Training results can be tough to judge, especially when dealing with a sinkerballer that’s been pitching in the late innings of games with minor leaguers behind him. He’s recorded 3.67 GO/AO (ground ball percentages aren’t typically tracked in the spring). For some context, Toronto’s Marcus Stroman was the MLB leader among quailed pitchers with 2.55.
So he’s getting the ball on the ground. But will that be enough for him to make the team? The Pirates and general manager Neal Huntington are openly toying with the idea of taking 13 pitchers north, which seemingly opens up another spot that could be Milbrath’s.
He’s currently packed in a bunch that includes Kyle Crick, Dovydas Neverauskas, Edgar Santana, Kevin Siegrist, and Josh Smoker that are battling for one or two spots. Outside of Siegrist, all of those players have options, meaning it’s certainly possible for the Pirates to make room for Milbrath.
With that being said, Huntington certainly seemed hesitant to grant a spot to Milbrath at this point when asked about him earlier this week.
“Jordan is very intriguing,” Huntington said. “It’s a slot that’s different, it’s a ground ball rate that’s elite, it’s a high velocity, but he’s one-year old in this slot and we’ve seen that at times. Last outing was very good and very encouraging again. We have numbers and we don’t want to force him on the club if he’s not ready or we feel that we have better options in front of him, but he’s still absolutely in competition to make this club and is going to get some more opportunities to go out there and compete.”
There’s always one final option when it comes to Rule 5 picks. The Pirates could attempt to work out a trade for Milbrath. But Huntington doesn’t seem to think that’s on the table.
“My gut would tell me,” he said with a smile, “Cleveland would love to have him back.”